The Minister of State for Science and Technology, Mohammed Abdullahi, tells DEBORAH TOLU- KOLAWOLE and SAMI OLATUNJI about his childhood, family, career and other issues
What can you recall of your childhood in Nasarawa State?
It was fun. I remember village life with nostalgic feelings. My father was a caring and doting father. We were always eager to wait for him whenever he travelled or came back from work. He always bought us biscuits, sweets and other goodies. In those days, Cabin biscuit was the in-thing, and we ate it with relish. However, my mother was a disciplinarian, who was always rebuking us for one wrong or the other. She is alive and still has a tough mien about her.
What was your fondest childhood memory?
I recall climbing mango trees and plucking mangoes to the disapproval of my mum. Then, we liked playing hide-and-seek under the moonlight. Those days were really fun in the village.
What influenced your decision to study Law?
In those early days, my father had a television that we plugged using a car battery. Most of the villagers used to gather around our house to watch it. Usually, our father switched on the TV at night from Fridays to Sundays. There was a popular TV programme then called ‘Crown Court.’ I think it was a British courtroom drama. I loved their regal dresses, composure, air of authority and spoken English. I am not sure I really understood what they were saying then, but their comportment mesmerised me. So, I said to myself, if I grow up, I want to be a lawyer.
What particularly piqued your interest in common/Sharia law?
I think those childhood memories, the awe of speaking grammar in court, and to a large extent, to assuage the fears of my mother, was responsible for my interest. My mother has the belief that lawyers would go to hell because they tell lies. So, I told her I would study both Sharia and common law — it’s a combined honours degree. It took my father’s intervention to convince my mother to allow me read Law. Again, I wanted to have the benefit of a comparative advantage, to study common law side by side with Shariah law. It is an interesting admixture of law. I particularly enjoyed Islamic Legal Jurisprudence and of course, common Law.
We were exposed to legal jurisprudence and the basics of English or received English laws. But, I enjoyed constitutional law and law of torts. Most lawyers are influenced by Lord Denning (an English lawyer and judge) as a great jurist, but for me, Lord Thankerton (a Scottish politician and judge) remains an inspiration. He set the ‘Control Test’ in the relationship between an employer and employee in a contract of employment, and made very incisive rulings on Law of Torts.
Maybe because of his background as a Scot, or perhaps because of the underlying frosty relationship between the Scots and Brits, that could have influenced his thoughts. With all benefits of hindsight, I think I made the right choice.
Why did you decide to join politics?
I did not make a conscious decision to join politics; it was more of a coincidence. I reluctantly went with a friend to a political party rally, and from there, I got a bit interested. Gradually, I got enmeshed in it. I tried a couple of contests and lost. The intrigues, manipulations and horse-trading are mind-boggling. Since then, I go off and on, alternating between legal practice and politics. As of now, I have 30 years post-call experience.
You’re the founding partner of Tafida Chambers (Massers Hammart & Co. Solicitors/Advocates). How were you able to own a law chamber at a young age?
It was very rough, tough and challenging. Most clients don’t want inexperienced lawyers. They would rather go for the big names. But, the experience I had during my National Youth Service Corps days in Enugu with Messrs Ukpabi, Ukpabi & Co, and a two-year stint with Olanipekun & Co prepared me for the challenges. But in most cases, I was a dormant partner because I was hugely distracted by politics. Often times, we go for months without clients or cases. When we do get clients, they are mostly non-paying— mostly relatives having one case or the other or matrimonial issues. They end up begging one and telling one how good one’s parents were and the need for one to emulate them and be generous, just to evade paying one’s fees.
What are the fondest memories of your legal career?
It was during my NYSC days. My principal sent me from Enugu to represent him at the Makurdi High Court before the Chief Judge. I left and slept in Makurdi. On that morning, I was the first to get to the court. I literally met the cleaners doing their work. Meanwhile, that was my first appearance as a lawyer after being called to the Bar. My chest was thumping and I was a bit scared when I saw the lawyer on the opposing side.
I remember he introduced himself as ‘Ekumankama Esq’. The judge came and the court was called to order. As we sat down, Ekumankama, as a senior lawyer, called our case, and announced himself. I also stood up and announced myself as the lawyer for the defendant/applicant. The judge then asked calmly, “Yes, Mr Abdullahi, what’s the position”? I stood up and stammered, “We have a motion sir for extension of time to file our statement of defence.” I then sat down. The judge asked Ekumankama, “Any objection”? Ekumankama stood up with a magisterial and mercurial confidence of an experienced lawyer and said, “Mi’Lord, we are not opposing their application ‘per se’, but we shall ‘infra’ be asking for cost.”
The judge then looked at me and said, “Yes, Mr Abdullahi, what do you have to say”? I was actually confused and didn’t know what to say. Mercifully, the Chief Judge gave his ruling instantly, “Application is hereby granted, no order as to cost. Matter adjourned to….” I was relieved and couldn’t wait to leave the courtroom. As I stood up and made towards the door, the CJ called me and I answered. I was praying fervently that I did not make any mistake. I was scared stiff at that moment. The CJ then said, “Your wig and gown look sparkling new.” I then said, “Yes, Mi’Lord, I was called to the Bar last week. This is the second time I’m wearing it.” The CJ then said, “Oh I see, congratulations.” The courtroom was thrown into laughter. I smiled, bowed and left. That experience has always been fun to me.
What was your most notable accomplishment as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Nasarawa State?
We introduced so many reforms that had to do with criminal justice. We opened a ProBono services desk, domesticated the Pension Reform Act, and did the compilation of laws of the state since the days of Benue/Plateau, Plateau and Nasarawa state. We also tried to model the MOJ after Lagos. Incidentally, during my first stint as Attorney General (2003-2005), the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, was the Attorney General in Lagos. He initiated and invited all states’ Attorneys General for a meeting, to compare notes and learn from one another. That was when we tried to adopt the multi-door court house as a fast track process combining conciliation and mediation in adjudication. It was a very cost-effective process. We tried to introduce it but could not complete it during my short tenure. We introduced so many executive bills that were passed into law— Local Government Law, Nasarawa State Chieftaincy Law, and several laws establishing state bodies and agencies.
What was your most notable accomplishment as the Secretary to the State Government of Nasarawa State?
That would be coordinating the ministries, departments and agencies effectively, organising the civil service to key into our drive for the development of the state, and liaising with security agencies to map out a strategic security agenda to keep the state safe. We were facing serious security threats then and it behoved my office to provide that seamless platform. We organised several capacity building workshops and training for staff of the civil service and built a befitting office complex with a modern e-filing system of records.
Did you expect your political appointment as the Minister of State, Science and Technology?
To be honest, when President Muhammadu Buhari nominated me, I was super elated for the opportunity to serve our country. It is a great privilege and I don’t take it for granted. I truly and deeply appreciate the honour from the President.
What are some of your achievements?
It is about two years as of today. Firstly, I’m not alone in the ministry. There is a Minister— Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, who was here earlier, so whatever we have achieved, is a collective effort.
Would you say that Nigeria has made significant strides in the science and technology sector?
Certainly, we have made progress. However, these are not physical things you see like roads and bridges. It is basically a research and development-driven ministry. We have made progress in the field of biotech, where we made great efforts in seedlings that have more yield and can stand the challenge of ants and temperate weather. We are also making efforts to resuscitate the textile industry to create jobs by providing good yielding cotton seeds that will be easy to cultivate. In lather technology, we have tried to revive our tanneries by providing super and chemically clean hides and skin. This is to minimize the importation of leather products and save resources.
We have also provided the country with an opportunity to do away with our mono-product economy via methanol technology for clean and reliable energy. Through the Energy Commission of Nigeria, we have worked on cleaner and more sustainable green energy to support our quests for stable power supply in the country. Also, through our Sheda Science and Technology Park, we are providing a one-stop hub for tech start-ups and budding entrepreneurs.
We have also through the National Board for Technology Incubation raised several entrepreneurs, leveraging on our facilities across the states. The National Biotech Development Agency is now partnering with Cuba to develop COVID-19 and other vaccines locally. We are now working to provide grid codes tech for address referencing as part of the nation’s geographic information infrastructure that is indigenous. Taking into consideration our peculiarities, people tend to assume that science and technology is all about ICT, broadband penetration, big data analytics, social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram, but science and technology incorporates all gamut of technology, including innovation, artificial intelligence, robotics, space tech and biotech.
Some people have said that Nigeria is lagging behind in the area of qualitative research. What’s your response to that?
That’s true in some senses. We are actually good in research. What we lack is venture capitalists that can invest in these research findings and commercialise them for the purposes of industry and production. If we have such, we will support our industries. It can create commercial activities and production which will generate jobs. However, Nigerians have a penchant for foreign goods and services. That’s why the president signed Executive Order 5 to support local contents in engineering and related activities.
How can we champion more discoveries in science and technology that would be beneficial to the country and the world?
It is about research and development, and innovation. Of course, this has to come with the complimentary funding of such sector. Most countries advanced by funding science and technology, but in Nigeria, we have so many challenges which make it difficult to focus on just one sector. But recently, the federal government decided as a policy to dedicate 0.5 per cent of our GDP to fund Science, Technology and Innovation. This is revolutionary and hopefully, will change the landscape of research and development for good.
With your experience in government, do you intend to run for any political position soon?
When we get to that bridge, we shall cross it.
What influenced your choice of a political party?
Basically, its manifesto, the personalities and leaders in the party and its grassroots appeal.
All over the world, it is believed that ‘politics is a dirty game.’ What’s your take on that?
It is about perception, which unfortunately is mostly subjective. Every profession has its lows and highs. It is the humanity in us that defines who we are in any profession. Doctors, teachers, engineers, clergy, traders, drivers all have ethical issues in their trade. Generally speaking, politics is not a dirty game. How does one define someone like the late Sir Tafawa Balewa— Nigeria’s first Prime Minister? A man of impeccable character, a patriot and nationalist who stood for Nigeria, and died without even a house? I draw a lot of inspirations from such people in politics.
How do you think our security problems can be solved as a nation?
Everyone should be involved. Information and intelligence gathering are very important. Communities should not protect bad eggs simply because they are ‘our own.’ Our security agencies and forces must be supported. They are risking their lives to make us safe.
Do you think that the President Muhammadu Buhari-led regime is doing enough to secure lives and properties of citizens?
I think the government is doing its best to solve these challenges. There are issues I cannot disclose to avoid miscreants and bad elements taking a cue to outsmart the security agencies. From the briefings we get, all I can say is that the government is doing its utmost best to protect us from all these challenges.
Many Nigerians have said they do not feel safe living in the country anymore. Do you feel safe as a citizen of this nation?
Yes, I truly feel safe. There is no country without challenges. In the United States of America, for instance, it is about mass shootings in schools, malls or houses. Yet, the people don’t condemn the American police. Rather, they rally round to give information to support investigations. But here, the situation is different. People even celebrate when our forces are harmed. It is always advisable to be vigilant when one moves around, watch who one interacts with and always be at alert.
How do you spend time with your family?
I wish there’s time for them. One is always busy these days. But any free time I have, we go out a bit. But mostly, their mum does all the work, regrettably. However, when I’m home, we bond together.
Would you say you’re a doting father to your children?
I’m not sure but I try to make out time to play and chat with them. Like I said, thanks to their mum, she is filling the void.
What attracted you to your wife and how did you propose to her?
I actually met her through an acquaintance. When we met, she was a bit shy and tried to avoid me. She was looking radiant in a flowing gown, with a unique carriage and calmness. I think that was the attraction. She later came to be so nice and accommodating. She is a software engineer and is so attached to computers and robotics. That helped me a lot in engaging the children.
Are you a football enthusiast?
I think so. I like to watch football and lawn tennis. We have arguments with my wife when I’m watching matches. I get her annoyed once I’m watching sports channels. She would rather watch tech programmes.
How do you spend your vacation in other parts of the world?
I have not taken a vacation since I came on board as a Minister. Hitherto, my favourite place was Mauritius. I like African tourism and sometime ago, we were in Obudu Cattle Ranch (Cross River State) with the family. It was a lovely location. We also visit Kajuru Castle in Kaduna State— it is a mountain resort with an amazing view of the hills.
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